‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Companion Book Review

For five weeks, AMC ran James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which addressed the history of sc-fi literature and media with a large cast of big names in sci-fi offering interpretations of the big, recurring ideas and tropes. AMC also released a companion book to the series. Of course, I had to have it.

Before we really get into the contents, let’s start with the physical makeup of the book. The book itself looks exactly like the commercials for the show–dark gray, blue and black, with out-of-focus images that suggest familiar sci-fi standards: a mysterious bipedal shape at the end of a hallway, outlines of planets, something that resembles a hallway in a spaceship, and a robotic bust that’s almost certainly the Terminator’s endoskeleton. The six “frame” hosts of the show are listed in white letters. In short, it’s not particularly interesting to look at, but it suggests that the book will be serious, and there probably doesn’t need to be much flair when the cover has the names of James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg on it.

The contents of the books have glossy pages that makes the pictures and photographs within look great. The gloss also resists liquid. The one downside of the glossy paper is that it gives off a weird chemical smell. It’s genuinely unpleasant. It shouldn’t deter you, but I’d recommend reading outside, or at least near an open window.

‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Companion Book Review - n3rdabl3
George Lucas and James Cameron on set for the show.

As for the actual, written contents, we get a forward from James Cameron, a preface by Randall Frakes, and then an interview of Cameron by Frakes. This interview kind of gives the overview for the whole book, which is especially useful for those who have missed the show or started the book before finishing it. This section is one of the most interesting parts of the book–not just for Cameron’s thoughts, but for the fact that this section includes storyboards and concept and production art for Cameron’s sci-fi endeavors, both the successful (Avatar, Aliens, Terminator franchise) and the scrapped (Xenogenesis). Cameron even takes the time to explain why he chose the frames for his show!

The book is broken up into interviews and essays about each of the episode’s themes, which was smart. Instead of getting Stephen Spielberg on aliens here and Stephen Spielberg on the future of mankind there, which is how it was meted out in the show, the complete Spielberg interview that was done for the show and later edited for each episode’s topics is transcribed in one place. What we see in the show with each frame’s interview is just the tip of the iceberg for almost all of them. Christopher Nolan and George Lucas are much better represented by their full interviews.

As one would expect, each person interviewed shared their opinions on sci-fi topics, their inspirations, and almost all had something to say about aliens, space, monsters, dark futures time travel, and AI. The discussions are all intelligent if not exactly scholarly, and it’s interesting to see the different levels each creator is working at. There’s some great craft advice for you aspiring writers, too!

‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Companion Book Review - n3rdabl3
H.R. Giger’s (pictured, left) design for the Xenomorph in the ‘Alien’ series (1979-present) was highly praised in the show, and it receives its expected dues within the companion book as well.

Although every episode theme is present in almost all of the interviews, each specific theme is given their own essay. The essays are written by some of the other people that provided many of the sound bites for the show, such as Lisa Yaszek and Gary K. Wolfe. These were some of the biggest highlights of the book for me–these were the people that really grew on me throughout the course of the show, and it’s a little more difficult to access their opinions and thoughts on anything than someone like Spielberg or George Lucas.

These essays were just as insightful as the interviews were, and sometimes even a little moreso because they come at the field from different angles: rather than just producers of sci-fi storytelling, the essay authors may have studied it academically, or researched it, and have interacted with it in very different ways. In these places, we see a deeper look at the actual history and development of sci-fi more than in the interviews, which are often rooted in the interviewee’s personal history with the sci-fi genre.

‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Companion Book Review - n3rdabl3
Both Spielberg and Cameron cite 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as a major influence on their work, as well as the genre as a whole, and even on actual, real-life science.

These essays were also the places where I was most likely to be surprised, and delighted by my surprises. I certainly enjoyed the interviews and learning about what shaped creators and their creations, but I was rarely surprised by titles they named or heard too many names I hadn’t heard before, even if some things cited were items I’ve never actually interacted with. However, in the essays, we get authors who are willing to bring up things like videogames–The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is mentioned by Yszek in her essay on the subject of time travel. It was fresh and exciting to think about that our frames just don’t really think about. Maybe it’s a generational thing, an occupation thing, whatever. But a good videogame can be read like any other piece discussed, and it was almost tortuous for it to be teased and then never mentioned again. It’s one big thing that feels like a missed opportunity in both the show and in the rest of the book.

One other thing I missed was that there isn’t input from every single person from the show. To be fair, there were a lot of people that spoke and shared opinions, even when the list of contributors began to get winnowed down. And the book is really only meant to be a companion to the television series, not a replacement (although it can definitely stand on its own). Still, if maybe we were to get a second companion book, AMC…

‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Companion Book Review - n3rdabl3
Some art and discussions of Avatar (2009) are included, though Cameron is fairly tight-lipped on where he’s taking the series.

All in all, the book is worth your time if you enjoyed the show, and even if you haven’t seen the show yet, it’s worth a look if you really love or are interested in learning more about the genre. (Or if you love James Cameron and the six frames.) Much of the media cited will be familiar to serious fans, but it all serves as a great foundation to audiences approaching the genre for the first time or audiences who are looking to branch out in the genre. It’s by no means an exhaustive look at the history of sci-fi and important works, but it’s not a bad place to start.

If you’re interested in the series that goes with this book, please check out our reviews for all six episodes: “Aliens,” “Space,” “Monsters,” “Dark Futures,” “Intelligent Machines,” and “Time Travel.”

Although the series has ended, all episodes are currently available to stream on AMC, depending on your cable provider.

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